Here's the second of my three reviews from the Historical Novels Review February 2008 issue.
The goal of HNR reviews: Reviews are geared toward our fellow readers. In 150-300 words, our incisive, insightful reviews provide an overview of the book’s plot and setting as well as critical commentary.
CALLIGRAPHY OF THE WITCH
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, St. Martin's Press, 2007, $24.95/C$28.95, hb, 370pp, 0312366418
Calligraphy of the Witch explores the horrors of the Salem witch trials through the eyes of a Latina slave. Concepción Benavides spent her early life cloistered in New Spain, learning calligraphy as an indentured servant to a poetic nun. Upon escaping, she's captured, raped, and sold into slavery by pirates. She is renamed Thankful Seagraves by her new mistress, a Boston merchant's wife, who is jealous of Concepción's pregnancy. Concepción fights to preserve her cultural past and her relationship with her daughter, only to watch as both slip away. Before long, Concepción finds herself a target of the witch hunt madness, thanks to a shocking act of betrayal.
Overall, the plot is complex and the characters well drawn, and the time and place (late 17th century Massachusetts) rendered convincingly – though, at the beginning, the details feel somewhat shoe-horned in and a bit contrived. The book gets off to a somewhat rocky start, whipping the reader around with point of view shifts and multiple flashbacks, but settles in about 50 pages in and achieves a good, steady pace. The dialog throughout, however, is somewhat stilted, feeling expository rather than natural. Though the themes of fear of the Other and man's often cruel dominion over women sometimes seem a bit pedantic, Gaspar de Alba does a good job of making me care about Concepción and her story, and offers an intriguing new view of the Salem witch trials.